Education for Sustainable Development

Spring 2008

Education and sustainable development

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Elaine Nevin


Elaine Nevin addresses the role of education in achieving sustainable development and explores the relationship between development education (DE), education for sustainable development (ESD) and environmental education (EE) in an Irish context. The article examines how these three ‘educations’ can develop and grow, and considers examples of ‘good practice’ in ESD in the context of Irish national policy frameworks, particularly focusing on how ESD can fit into these frameworks.


What is sustainable development?


The concept of sustainable development emerged as a response to a growing concern about human society’s impact on the natural environment. The concept of sustainable development was defined in 1987 by the Brundtland Commission (formally the World Commission on Environment and Development) as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (Brundtland, 1987)This definition acknowledges that while development may be necessary to meet human needs and improve the quality of life, it must happen without depleting the capacity of the natural environment to meet present and future needs. The sustainable development movement has grown and campaigned on the basis that sustainability protects both the interests of future generations and the earth’s capacity to regenerate. At first it emphasised the environment in development policies but, since 2002, has evolved to encompass social justice and the fight against poverty as key principles of sustainable development.

            There are two commonly used visualisations of how the various aspects of sustainable development interact: one is of three overlapping circles representing the three pillars of sustainable development - economy, society and environment (fig 1.a). The other shows the economy embedded in society, which in turn is embedded in the environment (fig 1.b). The latter focuses on the central role that the environment plays in human society and in turn in the economy.





The underlying concepts of sustainable development are defined by Agenda 21, which is the Action Programme for the 21st century adopted by governments at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (also known as the Earth Summit) in 1992. The Summit confirmed its resolve to promote the three pillars of sustainable development as interdependent and mutually reinforcing concepts.


What role does education play in sustainable development?


Good quality education is an essential tool for achieving a more sustainable world. This was emphasised at the UN World Summit in Johannesburg in 2002 where the reorientation of current education systems was outlined as key to sustainable development. Education for sustainable development (ESD) promotes the development of the knowledge, skills, understanding, values and actions required to create a sustainable world, which ensures environmental protection and conservation, promotes social equity and encourages economic sustainability. The concept of ESD developed largely from environmental education, which has sought to develop the knowledge, skills, values, attitudes and behaviours in people to care for their environment. The aim of ESD is to enable people to make decisions and carry out actions to improve our quality of life without compromising the planet. It also aims to integrate the values inherent in sustainable development into all aspects and levels of learning.

There are a number of key themes in ESD and while the dominant focus is on environmental concerns, it also addresses themes such as poverty alleviation, citizenship, peace, ethics, responsibility in local and global contexts, democracy and governance, justice, human rights, gender equality, corporate responsibility, natural resource management and biological diversity. It is generally accepted that certain characteristics are important for the successful implementation of ESD, reflecting the equal importance of both the learning process and the outcomes of the education process (adapted from ‘UN Decade of Sustainable Development’ UNESCO Nairobi Cluster, 2006). ESD should:


  • Be embedded in the curriculum in an interdisciplinary and holistic manner, allowing for a whole-institution approach to policy making.
  • Share the values and principles that underpin sustainable development.
  • Promote critical thinking, problem solving and action, all of which develop confidence in addressing the challenges to sustainable development.
  • Employ a variety of educational methods, such as literature, art, drama and debate to illustrate the processes.
  • Allow learners to participate in decision-making on the design and content of educational programmes.
  • Address local as well as global issues, and avoid jargon-ridden language and terms.
  • Look to the future, ensuring that the content has a long-term perspective and uses medium and long-term planning.


            To promote ESD, the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, 2005-2014, (DESD) was adopted by the UN General Assembly with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) designated as the lead agency for promotion throughout the decade. The decade pursues a global vision ‘of a world where everyone has the opportunity to benefit from quality education and learn the values, behaviour and lifestyles required for a sustainable future and for positive societal transformation’ (

            The goal of the decade, as outlined by UNESCO, is to integrate the principles, values and practices of sustainable development into all aspects of education and learning. This aims to encourage changes in behaviour that will create a more sustainable future. One of the most important aspects of the DESD is the recognition that ESD must engage a wide range of stakeholders from government, private sector, civil society, non-governmental organisations and the general public.

In its International Implementation Scheme (IIS) for DESD, UNESCO states that ESD is fundamentally about values, particularly respect for others, including those of present and future generations, for difference and diversity, for the environment and for the planet’s resources (UNESCO, 2006). Education enables us to understand ourselves and others and our links with the wider natural and social environment; this understanding serves as a durable basis for building respect. Along with a sense of justice, responsibility, exploration and dialogue, ESD aims to move us toward adopting behaviours and practices which will enable us all to live a full life without being deprived of basic human needs.


Overview of good practice in Ireland


In February 2007, ECO-UNESCO undertook a research project on behalf of Comhar SDC (Sustainable Development Council) on education for sustainable development in Ireland (ECO-UNESCO, 2007). The research remit included the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Strategy on ESD, European Union (EU) and Irish government policy frameworks, international case studies, and an overview of existing good practice in ESD in Ireland. The research methodology included a questionnaire based survey, adapted from the UNECE guidelines on good practice initiatives, and desktop research to identify examples of good practice projects and programmes in the area of ESD in Ireland. 

            The questionnaire was circulated to a wide range of groups in the formal and non-formal education sectors, including subject associations, subject support services, teachers’ unions, education centres, Vocational Education Committees (VECs) and youth organisations. Target groups also included non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working in the environmental, development, human rights, community and voluntary sectors, and businesses associations including the Irish Small Firms Association, the Irish Small and Medium Enterprise association, the Irish Business and Employers Confederation (IBEC) and others. 

            According to UNECE, projects and initiatives are considered good practice if they are closely related to ESD, generate ideas and contribute to policy development. They must have some of the following outcomes and characteristics:


  • Focus on educational and learning dimensions of sustainable development;
  • Innovative development of new and creative solutions to common problems;
  • Make a difference and have a tangible impact on those concerned;
  • Have a sustainable effect;
  • Have the potential for replication;
  • Support evaluation in terms of innovation, success and sustainability.


            Although the questionnaire response rate was relatively low (out of approximately 1,200 questionnaires circulated by email, 45 completed surveys were received) it did reflect a higher level and greater diversity of initiatives and providers in the area of ESD than had been anticipated. The highest response rate came from the environmental sector reflecting a wide range of programmes in formal, non-formal and informal education. ESD’s traditional associations with environmental education (EE) have allowed it to consolidate existing links in countries where EE strategies are in place. These associations are based on ESD’s placement of the environment at the centre of sustainable development.

            There was a low response rate from some of the sectors approached including the business, media, community and voluntary sectors, most likely due to the perception of ESD as a primarily environmentally-oriented concept. However, this assertion cannot be fully verified as the low response could also be attributed to other factors such as heavy workloads. 

The research project on ESD highlighted some examples of good practice within the formal, non-formal and informal sectors such as the ECO-UNESCO’s Young Environmentalist Awards programme and the Green Schools programme (known as ‘ECO-Schools’ internationally). ESD initiatives in further education highlighted by the research included West Cork Permaculture’s ‘Permaculture Design’ course, Clare Adult Education Centre’s ‘Environmental Trends and Impacts’ programme, Kimmage Development Studies Centre’s ‘Economics of Sustainability’ programme and ECO-UNESCO’s Further Education and Training Awards Council (FETAC) accredited module entitled ‘Introduction to Sustainable Development’. In the youth sector, the National Youth Development Education Programme and the ECO-UNESCO ‘Youth for Sustainable Development’ programme were acknowledged as good practice initiatives in youth work.

            Other programmes and initiatives included the Trócaire and City of Dublin Vocational Education Committee (CDVEC) Curriculum Development Unit Citizenship Studies Projects, the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland Continuing Professional Development programme, the Just Forests ‘Wood of Life’, the Global Action Plan (Cork) ‘Ecosaver programme’ and the Cultivate Centre in Dublin, which runs various courses including the Community Powerdown Toolkit.

Cite article as: Nevin, E (2008) 'Education and sustainable development', Policy & Practice: A Development Education Review, Vol. 6, Spring, pp. 49-62.


Environmental adult education and sustainable development

It is a fact that the role of education for sustainable development cannot be over emphasized. However , adult education plays a very vital role in promoting sustainable development of a nations economy because adults are said to be the productive sector of any nations' economy. Therefore, they need education to be able to meet up with the challenges they encounter in their day to day lives.


Indeed education Plays a significant role in imparting knowledge,skills and values capable of changing peoples' attitudes towards nature.
They come to value it knowing that it serves their livelihood and it is the same to serve that of generations to come. Uganda needs direction into ESD. You may not be aware but our historical forest Mabira has been in the center of bargain for long, to sell it to investors who need to plant sugar cane yet the ecological value of the forest to the country can not be compared to the value of sugar to the nationals and foreigners. Thank You.

I like your article.

the role of education as you mentioned are fantastic. Education plays such roles in the world over even in Nigeria's visin 2020.